Gina Lopez biases hit
Chamber exposes conflicts of interest involving her family firms
ENVIRONMENT Secretary Regina Lopez gave her family owned company an environmental compliance certificate to operate a geothermal power plant on a 14.03-hectare mountain in Kananga, Leyte in January while shutting down or suspending the operations of competitors, highlighting conflicts of interest that dog her appointment, mining officials said Sunday.
“The Lopez family’s many involvements in the energy sector highlight the glaring conflict of interest: How will she resolve the environmental catastrophes that involve her family’s energy business, such as the 2010 FPIC pipeline leak that effectively ruined the West Tower Condominium?” the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines said in a statement.
Documents obtained by the Manila Standard show that on Jan. 18, 2017, upon the orders of Lopez, the Environmental Management Bureau granted the Lopez-owned Green Core Geothermal Inc. an ECC to put up the Tongonan Geothermal Power Project in Barangay Lim-ao, Kananga, Leyte.
The geothermaal power plant, complete with auxiliary systems and 138-kilovolt substation, sits on a 14.03-hectare mountain that is expected to produce 123 megawatts, the document shows.
It was signed by Jacqueline Caancan, officer-in-charge under the Office of the EMB Director, “by the authority” of Lopez.
These conflicts of interest and accusations of bias are likely to hound Lopez when she comes up for confirmation before the Commission on Appointments on Wednesday, March 1.
“Apart from being an unnecessary duplication, Lopez’s mine audit is also tainted with manifest partiality and funding irregularities. Known anti-mining civil society organizations such as Alyansa Tigil Mina and their allied grassroots organizations were included as part of the mine audit teams,” said the CMP officials—Artemio Disini, Nelia Halcon and Ronald Recidoro – who filed an opposition to Lopez’s confirmation before the CA committee on environment and natural resources.
In an 11-page opposition letter, they said Lopez’s recent actions show an “undeniable bias” against and antagonism towards large-scale mining, “rendering her unfit and incapable of a responsible, fair, just and balanced implementation of the Constitution, the Philippine Mining Act and related laws and regulations, and of upholding personal interest and advocacies over public interest.”
To discredit and marginalize the mining industry, the complainants said, Lopez has shortcut legal and administrative processes, disregarded due process and vested rights, and even ignored the sanctity of contracts between the government and its mining contractors.
“Lopez is grossly unfit and does not have the administrative experience and competence to lead the DENR. Lopez has a poor track record in leading and managing environment and eco-tourism projects,” the complainants said.
“The DENR is one of the largest departments of government, responsible for governing and supervising the exploration, development, utilization, and conservation of the country’s natural resources. It has thousands of employees spread over 16 regional offices, six attached bureaus and nine attached agencies,” the complainants said.
In 2015, it had a budget allocation of P21 billion, P18 billion of which was under the direct control of the Office of the Secretary, they said.
Lopez, they said, attended Assumption College and Newton College of the Sacred Heart in Boston, apparently “without earning any degrees.” However, she is supposed to have a master’s degree in Development Management from the Asian Institute of Management and a doctorate in Humanities (Honoris Causa) from the Ateneo de Manila Naga University.
Lopez, they added, spent 20 years as a yoga missionary in Europe, India, and Africa, returning to the Philippines only in the late 1990s. Little is known about Lopez before she sat as the managing director of the ABS-CBN Foundation.
CA member Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III said the commission would make Lopez answer allegations by Chamber of Mines officials that she used the family-run foundation to corner multi-million-peso contracts that proved disadvantageous to the government.
Chamber of Mines officials claim Lopez, as managing director of the ABS-CBN Foundation Inc., had a memorandum of understanding to run the government-owned La Mesa Ecopark, which charges an entrance fee of P50 per person.
The foundation was supposed to keep 30 percent of the income, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System 40 percent, and the Quezon City government, 30 percent.
But Commission on Audit reports showed that the foundation failed to remit the rightful share to MWSS and the Quezon City government.
The mining industry group also lamented Lopez’s dependence on her favored consultant, former Mines and Geosciences Bureau chief Leo Jasareno.
Although Jasareno has been fired twice by President Rodrigo Duterte, he continues to hold office in the DENR to advise Lopez, the mining officials said.
“Jasareno has been holding on to his space in DENR, without any official position other than consultant, and has proven to be a very loyal and dependable ally to Lopez. He was present during the Feb. 2, 2017 press conference, where MGB officials had been barred entry,” the complainants said.
That Lopez discredited and alienated the MGB—the agency directly in charge of the administration and disposition of mineral lands and resources—show she was “clueless” about her obligations as department secretary, the mining industry group said.
Lopez also showed “a dangerous bias” against he mining industry, the group said.
On June 22, 2016, the complainants said, upon her acceptance of President Duterte’s offer for her to head the DENR, Lopez said: “I don’t like mining, the foreigners and the rich are the only ones benefitting from it but the farmers and the fishermen suffer.”
“As is well known, the stock market reacted negatively to the announcement of her appointment, with the market capitalization of mining companies dropping by as much as P48.6 billion compared with the level as of June 20, 2016, before the announcement was made,” the mining officials said.
Although most mining companies had already been ISO 14001 certified as of May 2016, Lopez ordered a redundant audit, the mining officials said.
Regional mine audit teams were created, composed of DENR officials representatives from the MGB, environmental management bureau and “third party experts.”
But none of the invited members of the team were experts, the complainants said.
“No geologists, social scientists, or even community health experts were part of the audit teams. The CSO [civil society organizations] representatives do not qualify as experts as they are clearly incompetent in these fields and can claim no relevant expertise. More importantly, being anti-mining organizations, these CSOs have a clear conflict of interest and could not have contributed to a fair and impartial mine audit,” they said.
“In fact, mining companies even report that the CSO representatives in their respective audit teams did nothing but air their opposition, unsupported by evidence, to the mining project being audited and conduct selective interviews with residents in the community,” they said.
“Her actions conflict with government’s policy direction on mining to encourage responsible mining. In all, Lopez’s anti-mining bias, her cavalier attitude towards the rights of companies, and her careless disregard for the sanctity of contracts and administrative procedure make her absolutely unfit to be secretary of the DENR,” they said.
Even before the start of the mine audit, Lopez declared the suspensions of 10 mining companies without the prerequisite notice, investigation, and hearing mandated under the Mining Act of 1995.
For most member companies of the Chamber of Mines, exit interviews with the respective audit teams indicated that they had passed the audit, they said.
One company, Lepanto Consolidated Mining Co., was even issued a signed audit report stating that “the company substantially complied with the pertinent provisions of the environmental and mining laws, rules and regulations, thus no penalty is recommended by the team.”
But Lopez later announced the closure or suspension of 28 mining companies and the cancellation of 75 mineral production sharing agreements, which would throw thousands of mine workers out of work, the companies said.